Dead Calm (1989)

Phillip Noyce

Nicole Kidman - Rae Ingram
Sam Neill - John Ingram
Billy Zane - Hughie Warriner

Genre - Thriller/Psychological/Drama/Suspense

Running Time - 96 Minutes

I always find it interesting to watch A-list actors and actresses in their early roles pre-celebrity, especially if they starred in horror films. While there are a tiny few who embrace their horror genre past in someway after becoming tabloid fodder and award winning performers, most of them probably want to forget their earliest roles. Do you think Paul Rudd still puts HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS on his resume? Does Tom Hanks still care that HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE? I don't think George Clooney has plans on going to that RETURN TO HORROR HIGH reunion if they're advertising THE RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES. Once many actors feel they're above the genre, their past is most likely forgotten or they'll make sure it's erased in the minds of their audiences.

1989's Australian thriller, DEAD CALM, is particularly an interesting case, as this feature was A-list actress, Nicole Kidman's, first mainstream movie. This is before Keith Urban. This is before the botox. This is before the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. This is even before Tom Cruise. DEAD CALM has a 22 year old, fresh faced, Kidman starring alongside already established actor, Sam Neill, and up-and-comer cult actor, Billy Zane. Re-watching DEAD CALM after many, many years, I wonder if Kidman still talks about this film, as this movie was the one that got her noticed and led to her current place in pop culture. I hope she does, because DEAD CALM is a very solid thriller with good performances by her and her co-stars. Let's see why DEAD CALM is still worth sailing on the ocean for...

John Ingram (Sam Neill) returns home after serving in the Australian Navy. Unfortunately, it's not a great welcome home, as his wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) was in a car accident that tragically murdered their young son. As Rae is left injured and traumatized by her son's death, John decides to take Rae on their yacht in order to get away from the real world for a while.

After a month of sailing, they come across a sinking ship. From that ship, they see a young man, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane), paddling towards them. Seemingly disturbed by events on that sinking ship, Hughie explains how he is the only survivor of an outbreak of botulism. John is very suspicious about Hughie's story, so he decides to check out the other ship. This leaves Rae alone with Hughie, who has been locked inside a bedroom.

John makes it to the sinking ship, realizing his suspicions were right as he finds the other occupants on the boat murdered. As John tries to make it back to Rae, he doesn't realize that Hughie has awakened and broken out of the bedroom. Threatening Rae, Hughie takes over the yacht and sails away from John's location so he doesn't find them. Believing that John won't be able to reach her in time, Rae takes matters into her own hands in order to survive Hughie's plans for her.

DEAD CALM is based on a 1963 novel by Charles Williams that was originally planned for a film adaptation as early as 1970 by Olson Welles. However due to financial issues and the death of Laurence Harvey, who was supposed to play the killer, the project was abandoned. That is until 1988, when Phillip Noyce decided to revive the project - making Nicole Kidman and, in a lesser extent, Billy Zane into future stars. Baring a slight resemblence to Roman Polanski's 1962's KNIFE IN THE WATER in terms of its premise [but done in a more psychological thriller form], DEAD CALM is one fans of the genre should watch for more than just curiosity on Kidman's debut role.

DEAD CALM gets criticized and overlooked a lot due to the fact that the film doesn't really have a major plotline other than its idea. It's pretty much what you read in the plot - a couple goes sailing to escape reality, a survivor of a sinking ship gets on the boat talking about his ordeal, the husband goes to the sinking trip realizing the survivor is a killer, who is stuck with his wife on their yacht. There's nothing really more in terms of character arcs or major subplots. Normally, this would be an issue because there's not much depth in terms of narrative. But for some reason, this "moment in time" story really works because there are other factors [such as direction and acting] that flesh out, what really is, a skeleton script.

The story works because the characters are all active participants, driving DEAD CALM from its standard beginning to its exciting end. John Ingram is given more than just a name and a title, as he was a member of the Australian Navy. He's a family man who grieves for his son, while helping his young wife deal with the trauma which she feels is her fault. That makes him likeable right away. What increases that feeling is that John is an intelligent, intuitive man who sees Hughie for who he is, but needs proof in order to confront him about it. When he's on the sinking ship, John never gives up on getting off of it in order to save his wife from a killer. In a way, DEAD CALM is really two stories in one, with John's being the small narrative. For much of the film, John is by himself trying to survive and give the ship power, which is in vain - all to rescue his wife.

John's wife, Rae, is definitely the main narrative as she struggles with surviving Hughie, who obviously has insane plans for her. She starts out as demure and quiet, playing the victim role when John can't protect her from this madman [who thinks he's on a luxury cruise and has delusions of how he sees his relationship with Rae]. But as she soon realizes that John may never come back to her [even though she never gives up on him], she begins to seduce Hughie by giving him what he wants from her, as if she's just as interested in him as he is in her. Many question why Rae let Hughie have sex with her, with thoughts of Stockholm Syndrome being brought up. But Rae just used her sexuality, Hughie's weakness, to gain an upper hand on him. This changes her from victim to a smart, resourceful young woman who will do anything to survive for herself and for her husband, John. This makes her realistic and sympathetic. DEAD CALM doesn't represent the seas, but rather John and Rae's focus on each other - needing each other to remain balanced and centered amongst the storm of losing their son and their struggle with Hughie.

As for Hughie, he's clearly a delusional psychopath. He's murdered a ship full of people. He relishes on tormenting Rae in order to have control over her and make her see things his way. But he's so a charming, good looking man who looks like anyone else, other than the fact that he acts a bit odd. He's a realistic villain that you could encounter anywhere, whether on land or sea. That makes him scarier than most cinema bad guys.

DEAD CALM's biggest accomplishment is the film's tension. It's everywhere in this movie. There's tension between John and Rae over the death of their son. There's tension between John and Rae when it comes to surviving their respective ordeals to reunite. There's sexual tension between Rae and Hughie. It's thick and visible, as the film builds it up more and more each passing minute. This is done through Phillip Noyce's direction and the way scenes are framed and composed, as well as edited. This is also done by the acting, as each person is devoted to their roles as they create chemistry with each other and make their characters believable. While DEAD CALM is thin on a narrative level, it totally makes up for it in mood and atmosphere. You feel the suspense coming through every frame, keeping your glued to the film from beginning to end.

Phillip Noyce does a great job behind the director's chair besides the tension, mood, and atmosphere. As I already mentioned, the framing and composition is great. The editing is solid. Scenes where John tries to survive sinking while Rae and Hughie playing a cat-and-mouse game with each other to one-up the other are very suspenseful. The picture looks beautiful. The location on the sea makes the film work stronger than it probably should. It's just a really nice looking film done by a man who knows what he's doing behind a camera. He compensated a thin story with strong visuals - that's a good director.

The acting, in particular, is fantastic in DEAD CALM. Nicole Kidman would become a stronger actress as she racked up films in her career. But she still does a fine job as Rae. She looks great before whatever she did to her face in later years, as well as gives a very credible performance from victim to resourceful woman who will do anything to survive. DEAD CALM is still one of my favorite Kidman performances, even though I'm not a big fan of hers to be honest. Billy Zane is probably the best actor as Hughie. He's so good at playing an unhinged psychopath, that I was convinced he really was one. I think this may be his strongest performance that I've seen him in. Surprised he didn't have a more profile career out of this, even though I'm sure he isn't complaining about his current cult one. Sam Neill also does a very good job as John. He's pretty much by himself for much of the film, but Neill does a convincing job as a man who'll do anything to survive to rescue his wife. His scenes were very suspenseful. Just a great cast.

Do I have any issues with DEAD CALM? I kind of wish John and Rae dealt with the death of their son more, sure. I think it would have strengthened their bond before Hughie threatens to destroy it. It doesn't really hurt the narrative, but I think it should have been treated more of a bigger deal than it was.

The ending, however, irks me more. Is it a terrible conclusion? No. But compared to the rest of the film, it just comes across as silly, implausible, and completely cliche. DEAD CALM plays it so smart, relying on tense moments to reel the viewer in, that having a "cinema ending" where the killer has to get in his "one last scare" takes away from it. The film doesn't really need it, but I'm sure a lot of audiences loved it though.


- Rae wanted to take more than the needed sedatives to get over the trauma of losing her child. Whenever I need to be sedated, I just watch a recent Nicole Kidman film...with my EYES WIDE SHUT.

- Hughie claimed the passengers on his boat died of food poisoning. Well watching BLOODRAYNE is a bit hard to swallow and digest.

- Hughie's boat was filled with dead bodies. Man, that must have been quite the DEMON KNIGHT!

- Hughie told Rae that her face fascinated him. I agree. How much botox does it take to make anyone's face turn into wax?

- Hughie was a lot faster than Rae. She may believe in BATMAN FOREVER, but she can't out-quick THE PHANTOM.

- Hughie definitely wanted some of Rae. A lot of men have wanted to get inside her RABBIT HOLE.

- Billy Zane should stay away from boats. See also: TITANIC.

While not perfect, DEAD CALM is still a great psychological thriller that will keep you engaged. A great trio of performances and wonderful direction highlight a tense and suspenseful show. Sure, the narrative could have been deeper and the ending is tacky. But DEAD CALM is still worth watching and even buying. I wish this Nicole Kidman had stayed around. Damn you, Tom Cruise!

3.5 Howls Outta 4

1 comment:

  1. Well George Clooney is a cool guy, so I guess that he still keeps Return of the Killer Tomatoes on his resume.


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